Big Picture

Culture Is Not Important If You're New To Management

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New managers and new founders think that building a team is all about culture. Get the culture right, and everything will work out.

No. It’s not.

Yes, I hear what you’re thinking already. “But how about the bajillion blog posts out there that say that culture is everything?”

“What about the Peter Drucker[1]  saying ‘culture beats strategy’?”

Drucker is right, and those blog posts are also right. Culture does beat strategy, and culture is important.

But culture doesn’t matter if you’re a bad manager.

Think of it like this: those blog posts about culture? Drucker’s maxim? Hell, even Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things? Well, they’re not for you.

They’re for the experienced managers. As my Judo sensei used to say: don’t try a black belt technique when you’re merely a white belt.

Or, in other terms, don’t worry about running when you don’t know how to walk.

(This isn’t an accurate analogy by the way. Shaping culture is an intermediate concern, not an expert one. A blue belt technique, not a black belt’s).?

I'm writing this post in response to the dozen founders and first-time managers I've met who have read the aforementioned gajillion blog posts on culture and think to themselves: "Oh! Culture is what is important in my management of my startup!" and then proceed to spend time and money on lavish off-sites and elaborate company rituals and team building activities every month.

But that isn't what culture is, and that isn't how you change culture.

Shaping Culture is a Higher Level Skill

Here's a concrete story to back up what I'm saying. A year or so into my leadership of the Vietnam office, we decide to split the growing engineering team into two: one team for web services, and the other for native platform development. A couple of months after the split, I began to realise that the two teams were evolving separately from each other. Members of one team didn't talk much with members of the other, and the culture of both started to shift.

This wasn't a problem per se — we still managed to deliver our work as before. But I began to worry that the shifting cultural dynamics might eventually lead to miscommunication problems and misalignment down the line. I was also aware that it was easier to fix this problem now, when we were a small team of 15, then much later, when we had grown into a larger company.

I began a series of experiments designed to shift cultural dynamics between the two teams. I started catering lunches, hoping to bring the two teams together. I started running board game nights — in the hopes of creating cross-team ties. Some of the activities we tried resulted in results I wanted. Others didn't.

The point I'm trying to make here is that I was able to shift cultural dynamics because I was already experienced in management. I knew how to give feedback, I could delegate well, I had already put in the effort to know each member of the engineering team as individuals.  Over the preceding year, I had also systematically set up methods for retrieving information (which came via regular one-on-ones and weekly management review meetings) — which came in handy when I wanted to find out about the efficacy of my culture-shifting efforts.

The truth is: if you’re not delegating well, if you don’t have a clear sense of your subordinate’s abilities, if you don’t understand how to build trust, and if you can’t give difficult feedback consistently, then you’re not ready to shape culture.

If you do those things well, culture becomes a lot easier to shape. If you don’t, then you’re undermining your culture building efforts. Get the basics right, and the rest will follow.


1. Probably not Peter Drucker, as per this article on Quote Investigator.